Norwegian Fjords & Scottish Isles
Published on Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Sunday, June 24, 2012 - Oslo, Norway: Our adventure began with our arrival at the Radisson Blu adjacent to the Gardermoen Airport in Oslo. After settling into our comfortable hotel, we assembled for a welcome beer and wine reception and a sumptuous banquet. Our Expedition Leader, Mike Messick, took to the podium to brief us on the expedition’s highlights and the logistics for getting ourselves to the gate for our early morning flight to Tromsø.
Monday, June 25 - Oslo / Tromsø / Embark Clipper Odyssey: The day began very early as we made our way to the busy and crowded airport and soon we were on the ground in the Land of the Midnight Sun. We boarded busses for our first excursion, a drive through Tromsø, “The Paris of the North.” The city was enjoying its Polar Day, the period in which the sun never sets. As the busses wound their way through the narrow streets, our local guides told us about Tromsø’s colorful history and what it is like to live in a land of light … and darkness. We crossed over the sound on a soaring bridge for a visit to the Arctic Cathedral, a modern church that is a marvel of architectural design, reminiscent of sheets of ice, Sami tents, and cod drying racks all at the same time. It features an impressive stained glass window, one of the largest in northern Europe. We then visited the Tromsø Museum, where we saw displays on the culture of the reindeer herding people known as the Sami. There were also medieval wooden sculptures and a room full of Viking artifacts. Next, we headed for one of Tromsø’s premier attractions, a cable car that transported us to the top of Mt. Storstein where we had lunch with a fabulous panoramic view. Back at sea level, we boarded the Clipper Odyssey.
We unpacked, had our mandatory Zodiac drill, and then had our first onboard briefing. Introductions to the staff were given, as was a preview of what would happen the next day. Off to dinner and then, totally exhausted, we made our way to our cabins for a well-deserved night’s rest. For those who dared to look outside, the sun was up all night long.
Tuesday, June 26 - Trollfjord, Lofoten Islands / Stamsund / Reine: The day began very early with Mike’s announcement that we were approaching Trollfjord, one of the most spectacular waterways in Norway. We dressed warmly and headed topside to witness the ship moving into an extremely narrow defile. Sheer, glaciated cliffs soared into the heavens above us. When we reached the end of the fjord, we marveled at the captain’s navigation skills—he rotated the Clipper Odyssey 180° in place, then sailed out of the fjord by the same remarkable course we had just traversed.
After breakfast, we relaxed for a bit before the ship pulled into the small port of Stamsund. We disembarked for a journey to the Lofotr Viking Museum, reverentially known to the locals as Borg. Built on the site of an early pagan religious center, circa 500 A.D., Borg is most famous for its reconstructed Viking long house. A 1983 discovery by a farmer led to the excavation of what turned out to be Norway’s largest Viking-era building. At 272 feet long and 29 feet wide, the timber framed, sod-covered building was huge in its day and impressive by anyone’s standards. We watched an imaginative film about the original occupants of the long house and were entertained and enlightened by a guide dressed in period clothing. A bus trip back across the hills returned us to Stamsund in time for lunch.
We weighed anchor and cruised to the small, but highly picturesque fishing village of Reine. Local guides took some of us on tours of the fishing operations, or alternatively, we went on either a bird walk or a long hike. No matter the choice, the views were epic. The evening wound to a close when Captain Alan McCarty hosted both a welcome cocktail and dinner reception. We were introduced to the Clipper Odyssey’s full-time staff and had a delightful end to the day.
Wednesday, June 27 - Kjerringøy / Røst: Another early day began with a wake-up call by Mike. After a quick breakfast we boarded the Zodiacs for a short cruise and our first wet landing at Kjerringøy. We stepped out of the boats and back into time—Kjerringøy is an immaculately preserved fishing and trading village from the first half of the nineteenth century. We first watched an emotional film, cast in the first person of “Anna Elizabetha,” the owner of the cod fishing business and the mercantile properties that made up the center of the village. We moved from building to building to bear witness to the life of Anna and her story. There was a well-stocked general store, bake house, fish cake kitchen, and wharf house.
We returned to the ship just in time for the first of the trip’s lectures. Dr. Stephen Law gave a lively lecture on The World of the Vikings: Norway in the Year 1012, authentically dressed as a Viking of the eleventh century.
After lunch and a relaxing afternoon, it was time to head back to the Zodiacs to visit the famous islands of Vedøya and Røst. We launched the boats and headed off for a Zodiac cruise around the towering cliffs and jagged peaks; the birds were everywhere. Kittiwakes squawked and fulmars soared; razorbills and puffins dove into the water; guillemots and black guillemots flapped above our heads, and squadrons of common shags patrolled the sky. At the top of the cliffs, white-tailed sea eagles swooped into the colonies for an easy meal. The chill of the afternoon was thawed when our cruise director, Julie Fielding, motored out with cookies and hot chocolate.
Back on the Clipper Odyssey we had the first of our recaps. Jim Wilson made humorous apologies for his “birder enthusiasm,” Tom Sharpe discussed the curiosity of a stone from the Americas appearing in Norway, and Tim Baughman told us about how the cod industry of Norway began when an Italian sailor shipwrecked there in the fifteenth century.
We headed off to dinner, but, unbelievably, the day was not done yet: a midnight party on the Pool Deck found a score of intrepid souls celebrating our crossing of the Arctic Circle. Champagne in hand, we toasted the stainless steel globe placed on a small island near the Circle. The sun hung very low, and we savored the symbolic moment.
Thursday, June 28 - Vega Island: After breakfast we disembarked for a dry Zodiac landing at the town of Nes on Vega Island. As it turned out, we were the first cruise ship ever to visit this location, so the arrival of our Zodiacs in the harbor was cause for celebration; people greeted us with enthusiasm and pictures were taken for the local paper. Having recently gained UNESCO World Heritage status as a cultural landscape, Vega’s tourist industry is in its infancy. The island is a well-preserved location that still practices sustainable economic development, the production of eider down. Considered the world’s warmest and lightest down, the chest feathers of the female eider duck are used to build nests for her chicks. The down, as one of our guides put it, “is as good as gold, and as light as air.” Since Viking times, the locals have cultivated a symbiotic relationship with the ducks by building them houses and looking after them. The eiders of Vega are semi-domesticated as a result. We visited the Natural History Exhibition and were treated to a slideshow on the culture of the island. We also visited the Eider Down Museum, where we gleaned insight into how the down was collected, cleaned, and stuffed into expensive duvets. Most unusual was the Coastal Walk, led by Vega’s mayor, Mona. She introduced us to the flora of the island and showed us some incredibly small orchids.
Back on the ship, we had a lovely lunch and set sail under a blue sky. We negotiated the small channels near the island of Smøla, which were lined with picturesque and brightly painted houses. At the end of the channel we stopped to see the geologic wonder of Torghatten, a mountain with a very large hole through it. We were treated to competing explanations over the loud speaker: the cultural historian argued that (according to legends) the hole had been caused by trolls; the ship’s geologist provided a more scientific account.
An afternoon lecture found us gathered together to hear Jim W give a presentation entitled Sea Birds of Northern Europe, and we finished the day with a recap. Kevin Clement briefed us on some unusual aspects of botany and the botanist Linnaeus, Jim McCarthy gave us a sobering demonstration of what will happen when the oceans acidify, and Stephen told us about the curious drinking habits of Viking berserkers. As Mike promised us that we could sleep in late tomorrow, there was great rejoicing!
Friday, June 29 - Runde: How glorious to sleep in for a slower paced “morning at sea.” The Clipper Odyssey surged through the open waters of the Norwegian Sea, gently rocking from side to side. We lingered over breakfast and then met in the ship’s main lounge for a pair of morning lectures. First up was Tom who lectured on From Gneiss to Ice: Geology and Landscapes of Norway, followed by Tim’s presentation entitled Nansen: The Greatest Norwegian.
We arrived at Runde after lunch, an island with an estimated 700,000 seabirds. We cruised next to the towering cliffs—and sometimes even under and into the cliffs. Shags sat on every other rock and the common guillemots communed with the razorbills. By far the finest moment was the large colony of nesting gannets, birds so large that not even the sea eagles bothered them. The cruise was simply fantastic, especially with the unexpected sunshine.
Back on board, we reassembled for another lecture from Jim M regarding Arctic Climate Change. At the end of the day we enjoyed another recap. Mats Forsberg demonstrated the miracle of a simple bird feather; Jim W reflected on the birds of Runde; Kevin regaled us with a rendition of Poe’s The Raven; and Stephen entertained us with a quick lesson in genealogy and a local Viking adventurer whose descendants changed English history.
Saturday, June 30 - Geiranger / Geiranger Fjord: Our day began with an early morning announcement that we had arrived in Geiranger Fjord. Looking out the window, we could instantly see why this fjord is listed as a World Heritage Site—sheer green cliffs soared towards heaven, while torrents of water cascaded from the sky above. If ever there was a landscape deserving of the designation “sublime,” this was it. We ate quickly knowing that our arrival in the fjord would be followed by others, and sure enough, the first Zodiacs were hardly away before a behemoth cruise ship muscled in beside us. We drove up through the switchbacks to get us to the Ørne Svingen overlook; from there we could see the fjord below us and the Seven Sisters waterfall to the northwest. Then we were off to the high country of the Flydaljuvet Gorge, and the even higher Mt. Dalsnibba. Atop the mountain were sweeping vistas that looked like something from the Ice Age. Then it was back down the mountain to a few more photographic viewpoints of the fjord. The hardiest chose to walk down to the town, while others enjoyed the quicker and drier option of the busses. Once in Geiranger, we strolled through the town and did some shopping. A quick Zodiac trip found us back at our warm, dry ship for lunch as we sailed down Geiranger Fjord.
After a quick nap, we rendezvoused in the lounge to hear Mats give a short talk on The White-Tailed Sea Eagle, followed by another lecture by Tim on Amundsen: Man of Both Poles. The evening ended with a festive cocktail party, a wonderful dinner, and a special flambé dessert with Irish coffees.
Sunday, July 1 - Bergen: Morning found us dockside in Bergen, officially “the rainiest city in Europe” with an average 350 days of rain per year! We loaded the busses and made our way to the Hanseatic Quarter of Bryggen where we ambled through the sole remaining wooden buildings of one of the League’s biggest district offices. Our guides told us of the challenges faced by the German merchants who lived in these dark, damp, and highly flammable buildings. Apparently no fires were allowed for warmth and even candles were forbidden.
We wound our way through picturesque streets to Troldhaugen, the home of Norway’s most famous composer, Edvard Grieg. After a stroll down the long, tree-lined lane that leads to the estate, we toured the ground floor of the house that Edvard and his wife Mina had lived in for decades. Then we headed over to the adjacent Troldsal (Troll’s Hall) for a private piano performance by Christian Hundsnes Grovlen. Some finished off the morning with a pilgrimage to the romantic grave site of Edvard and Mina, which overlooks the beautiful lake beneath the house.
Back on the Clipper Odyssey, as we sailed south and then out into the North Sea, we were treated to a pair of afternoon lectures. Tom gave a delightful presentation called Isles of Contrast: From Shetland to Bass Rock, followed by Kevin who’s lecture was entitled It’s Not Easy Being Beautiful: Wildflowers of the North Atlantic.
After a quick recap, we enjoyed a fun guessing game led by Jim W., Jim M., Stephen, and Mike.
Monday, July 2 - Fair Isle, Orkney Islands, Scotland / Mousa: Our North Sea passage rocked us gently to sleep, and we awoke under brilliant blue skies to find ourselves approaching Fair Isle, a miniscule island halfway between the Shetlands and the Orkneys. The birders and geologists moved off to the western cliffs, while the long hikers started on the north side of the island. The majority of the group, however, had a leisurely walk on the south side, visiting an excellent local museum, the Old Kirk with its lovely stained glass windows, and the town hall, which had been set up as a hospitality center with refreshments, Scottish baked goods, and a local market of Fair Isle products. Many purchased Fair Isle knitwear made with Shetland wool, distinctive for its complicated patterns. A gentle walk back to the Zodiacs took us through bucolic meadows full of sheep.
After lunch we gathered to hear Stephen give his lecture on The Fighting Jarls of the Orkney Isles, dressed once again as a Viking, before we took our group photo.
A Zodiac excursion immediately followed, as we had arrived at Mousa Broch, the best preserved example of an Iron Age “complex Atlantic roundhouse.” Some of us took a walk before visiting the broch, but group by group, everyone had an opportunity to enter the tower to hear Stephen, still dressed as a Viking, give a lively lecture on scholarly debates about these distinctive buildings. At 44 feet tall, the double-walled Mousa is literally in a class by itself. Open to the sky, but roofed over when it was constructed about 2,000 years ago, Mousa Broch has its original spiral staircase coursing up between the walls. Some of us braved the small, slippery steps to climb to the top. Stephen finished his briefing with an account of a notorious abduction and love affair that happened here in Viking times. Late, late, after dinner, several of us returned to the broch for a midnight rendezvous of our own: only when it gets dark do the storm petrels swarm in from the sea to feed their chicks nestled in the cracks and fissures of the tower itself. Beating wings flew just above our faces as we lay prostrate next to the broch until about 1:00a.m. Now that was a good day.
Tuesday, July 3 - Jarlshof / Lerwick, Shetland Islands: The sea cliffs of the Isle of Noss greeted us as we rubbed sleep from our eyes. One of the largest gannet colonies in the world was directly off the port side. Thousands upon thousands of the birds crowded along the cliffs, soared through the air, and plummeted into the sea below. The captain obliged those on the starboard side by turning the ship around and doing the same cliffs a second time.
We approached the mainland of the Shetlands from the south and left the Clipper Odyssey by Zodiacs for our morning excursion to Jarlshof. The sea swell made our trip more exciting than we had seen thus far, but we all made it safely to shore and into the warmth of the waiting busses. Jarlshof, an imaginary name bestowed on the site by Sir Walter Scott, is an archaeological treasure that provides a sweeping 4,000 years of history. We toured, in chronological sequence, the Neolithic farming/fishing huts, the Bronze and Iron Age wheel houses, the Viking-age long house, the medieval farmstead, and, finally, the 17th-century lairds manner house that had inspired Scott to give Jarlshof its name.
A scenic trip along the coast, complete with seals lounging on the beach, took us to the Shetlands’ capital city of Lerwick. We visited the new Shetland Museum, a thoughtfully organized collection that again covered the sweep of history, but also chronicled the lives of the Shetlanders of the last two hundred years. Then, it was back to the ship for a quick lunch before an afternoon of leisurely walking tours and shopping. Those who returned to the ship for the briefing and recap were treated to comic routines, precipitated by Stephen’s purchase of a haggis in the local butcher shop; ever the Scotsman, Tom got up and gave a straight-faced and detailed explanation that the haggis was actually an endangered, three-legged mammal from the Highlands. Tom continued his farce, with the assistance of Jim W., in a talk about geologic time. Dinner followed, either on or off the ship, and we all had a pleasant evening dockside in Lerwick.
Wednesday, July 4 - Kirkwall: BWAAAHN! Most of us awoke to the blare of the ship’s fog horn as we inched our way through minimal visibility towards Mainland Isle of the Orkneys. In spite of the horn, we slept in, knowing that a late brunch was planned. The “Fourth of July Brunch” was a feast worthy of the name, and we fortified ourselves for a very long excursion on Mainland.
A complicated itinerary took us to several sites, although in a different order. Visited in the capital city of Kirkwall was the St. Magnus Cathedral and a number of the island’s most famous 5,000-year-old sites, designated a World Heritage location called “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” The Ring of Brodgar, a circle of standing stones occupied the center of a ridge that seems to have been a sacred causeway. Nearby is a brand new excavation known as the Ness of Brodgar; here archaeologists are unearthing Neolithic temples of monumental proportions. At a chambered cairn called Maeshowe, we crouched down for the long, low entrance to this legendary tomb once visited by the Vikings, who had left behind the largest collection of runic inscriptions found in one place. But the highlight of the day was the incomparable Skara Brae, a human settlement abandoned after 800 years of use in the Neolithic Period. Discovered after a storm eroded the coastline in 1850, the excavations that began in 1927 have unearthed the best preserved Neolithic community found anywhere. We made our way back to the ship, and with a piper playing Scotland the Brave, we bid goodbye to the Isles and headed for the Scottish mainland. The evening drew to a conclusion with the captain’s farewell cocktail and dinner.
Thursday, July 5 - Isle of May / Bass Rock / Leith: Somehow, the captain had navigated the Clipper Odyssey safely through the fog to the Isle of May. The Isle of May—or simply “the May”—is a small island on the seaward end of the Firth of Forth. At only 111 total acres, the May is one of Scotland’s premier National Nature Preserves. In addition to being a breeding ground for gray seals, the May is home to many, many species of seabirds. We scampered ashore, and after being briefed by the island’s warden, we ran the gauntlet of aggressively nesting Arctic terns. Many were pecked on the head, and a few of us were treated to even more humiliating abuse. But the puffins and razorbills more than made up for the rude greeting; they were everywhere. With 40,000 pairs of puffins, the comical birds seemed to be eyeing us from virtually every rock. We broke out into our usual walking routines and visited many of the coves and crannies of the May. The island might also be called “The Holy May,” as we visited the ruins of a monastery that had functioned on this island for more than eight hundred years. Additionally, one of Scotland’s Stevenson lighthouses crowned the heights of the diminutive island.
Back on the ship, we dined outdoors, as the sun had finally burned off the fog, and just in time! We came upon Bass Rock, the gigantic core of an ancient volcano, now home to 50,000 pairs of breeding gannets. One of the most famous birding sites in the world, Bass Rock was so covered with the white birds that it appeared as if fresh snow had fallen. So unbelievable was the spectacle, we circumnavigated the huge rock a second time.
Mid-afternoon found us enthralled in Jim M.’s last lecture on Recent Changes in the Earth’s Climate. As evening arrived, we had our final recap, with members of the staff reflecting on the important moments of the expedition. We also learned the answers to the guessing game about the staff, and appropriate awards were handed out to those who had intuited best. Our final dinner was followed by our last gathering for another Zegrahm tradition: the expedition’s slideshow. Jim W. and Tom had put together an excellent retrospective that featured virtually every passenger on the ship.
Friday, July 6 - Leith / Disembark / Edinburgh / USA: With mixed emotions we rose early—some of us very early—and said our goodbyes to the Clipper Odyssey and the staff. With a lady piper marching dockside, we moved to our respective vehicles and motored off to the airport or to Edinburgh itself. Indeed, our expedition to the Norwegian Fjords and the Scottish Isles was the grandest of adventures—the very stuff of which fond memories are made.